By Sarah Schuetze
When Virginia Conn was growing up in LaGrange, Ky., the opening of the town’s first Chinese restaurant warranted a school field trip for lunch. At that time, LaGrange was still growing, and it didn’t offer Conn much exposure to different cultures or people. Through reading, however, Conn’s passion for language and culture began to grow.
This fall, Conn took a new step in pursuing this passion as a graduate student in the Comparative Literature Department at Rutgers University. She hopes her degree will allow her to live and work in different countries, “never settling for too long in any one place,” and it’s that process of adapting that interests Conn.
As an English undergraduate, at UK Conn sought opportunities to broaden her understanding of other cultures. Instead of reading about them, she wanted to learn first hand. Conn received an award to spend a year in France at the Université de Caen Basse-Normandie. She describes her time there as “a formative experience both in [her] appreciation of other cultures and introduction to being immersed in a language.”
Throughout college Conn worked for Kentucky Refugee Ministries, a non-profit organization for refugee resettlement. Primarily, Conn helped Afghan, Nepalese, and Congolese women adjust to their new lives after they had fled tremendous poverty and hardship. These women and their circumstances “illustrated many of the conflicts between our respective worldviews,” which helped Conn adapt to being in new environments herself.
For instance, after graduating in 2009, Conn served 27 months in the Peace Corps “in a primarily-Muslim farming and mining community in rural western China, working as part of China’s western development (西部大开发) initiative as a TEFL [teaching English as a foreign language] teacher and social development specialist.” Many of Conn’s students and colleagues in Lanzhou, were part of an enclave of Hui people, an ethnic/religious minority within China’s mostly Han culture. While people who kept Muslim traditions were not uncommon in Conn’s community, they were definitely “outsiders” among the Han.
Some of Conn’s students in China had never seen a foreigner before, let alone spoken to one. But speaking at all was challenging at first since Conn didn’t know the language. She says, “I never would have picked up the language if I hadn’t been dropped into it the way I was.” She hadn’t planned on studying Chinese before she went to China, but it is now a main feature of her proposed graduate study.
The cultural intersections Conn experienced and witnessed in France, China, and among the refugee women in Kentucky have shaped her graduate scholarship. At Rutgers, she plans to investigate the connections between Chinese, Arabic, and French literature that addresses displacement, particularly science fiction.
Science fiction, Conn explains, “involves a fundamental shift in our ways of viewing both ourselves and the external world.” Therefore, it’s a subversive genre that allows readers to view “social mores in an estranged setting.” Ultimately, Conn considers science fiction a “literature of hope” because it can reveal practices and beliefs that become so habitual that we stop questioning them.
In addition to offering a competitive stipend package and a collegial environment, the Comparative Literature Department at Rutgers seemed like the best fit for Conn’s areas of interest. The program gives Conn the freedom to work with professors in the Department of African, Middle East, and South Asia Languages and Literatures, the Department of Jewish Studies, and the Department of French. Like other students in the program, Conn can chart her own course of study.
In the year ahead, Conn is looking forward to working with some leading scholars in her field. And, with living so close to such a cultural mecca like New York, she plans to explore museums, exhibits, and, of course, restaurants.